Bulgaria's capital hosts many religions, each with its own history
They are all over Sofia; some with shining domes, some old and crumbling, and some housed in inconspicuous grey buildings. Through the many places of worship in Sofia you can trace back the history of the city for nearly two millennia, although many were only built during the last 150 years and bear the marks of wars and Communism.
This diversity of religions comes from a long and complicated history, peopled by Romans, Bulgarians, Ottomans, Jews and Greeks, along with other minorities. Each group built its own place of worship, though the line between "traditional" and "non-traditional" religions blurred between 1944 and 1989, when the Communist regime persecuted all of them indiscriminately.
A walk through Sofia's temples is an invitation to explore the city from an angle you may not have thought of before – that of faith.
STS CYRIL AND METHODIUS CHURCH
This church owes much to capitalism – its very existence, in fact. When the city plan of 1891 made it necessary to demolish the old church of the Sublime Virgin Mary, the church governors received compensation. They decided to build a new church with the money, but had enough only for the foundations. Two years of deliberation followed, until Nikola Zdravkov, a clerk in the city council, took the initiative. The plot for the church, on the corner of Maria Louisa Blvd and Trapezitsa St, was given to a concessionaire and turned into the London hotel. The income from this secular enterprise, combined with bank loans and donations, served to finally build the church Ss Cyril and Methodius at 47 George Washington St.
Once started, work progressed quickly and the church was consecrated in 1909. The parishioners and the church governors set up many charity initiatives: a free kitchen for students and old people, financial aid for the sick and the poor, disabled servicemen and refugees, and donations for building other churches in Sofia. In the end, the governors disbursed twice the cost of building the church as charity.
The change of regime in 1944 did not stop the growth of its community, which continues to the present day. The church has a renowned youth choir and offers courses in various arts connected with religion, such as wood carving, Eastern church music and icon painting. It even has a consultation service for religious matters and offers counselling to former members of sects. These activities make it one of the few Orthodox churches in Bulgaria that tries to engage people in religion – remarkable in a country where the official religious institution is largely passive on public issues.
ST NEDELYA CHURCH
The church of St Nedelya stands in the square of the same name, next to the Presidency, at the crossroads of the major city arteries. A church of the same name has stood here for centuries, probably since the 10th century. The remains of the Serbian King Stefan Milutin, which were brought to the church in the 18th century, prompted a name change as well – the church was called Holy King, or Sveti Kral, for a couple of decades. In the 1850s it was decided to build a cathedral for the Sofia Metropolis. Enthusiastic citizens began to dismantle the old wooden structure and the construction of the new church began in the summer of 1856, funded by local donations.
The works were led by Petar Kazov, a master builder, or dyulgerin. After numerous problems – an earthquake destroyed some of the unfinished church and there was a scandal about the misappropriation of funds – the church was finally consecrated in 1867 in the presence of more than 20,000 people. Over the next 50 years, it was renovated several times. The belfry was built in 1879 to accommodate the eight large bells donated by the Russian Knyaz Dondukov-Korsakov, and the whole appearance of the church was changed in 1898.
St Nedelya in 1925
On 16 April 1925 it became the scene of what was then the world's largest terrorist attack, when the banned Bulgarian Communist Party set off a bomb during the funeral of General Konstantin Georgiev. The intended victims of the attack were King Boris III and his government. In that respect it was unsuccessful, but the death toll was 213, mainly women and children. The government imposed martial law and severely punished the perpetrators, eight of whom were sentenced to death.
The church was rebuilt by architect Nikola Lazarov, and consecrated again in 1933. A black granite tablet on the wall commemorates the terrorist attack of 1925. Nowadays there is always at least one wedding on a Sunday and the church is full of people for the Thursday service.
ST SOFIA CHURCH
St Sofia is a church with many secrets. Standing to the side of St Aleksandr Nevskiy, it often gets overlooked, probably because of its unimpressive façade. The building has been meticulously restored to its medieval appearance, but its origins are in the 4th century, when an early Christian church was built on the same spot to serve as a burial ground. During the following centuries it underwent numerous enhancements, until Byzantine emperor Justinian I named it after God´s wisdom in the 6th century – Sophia in Greek means wisdom. In the 16th century the city itself became known as Sofia because of the church.
According to legend, every attempt by the conquering Ottomans to change the church into a mosque ended in disaster. Earthquakes, which destroyed the church, happened at least three times – in the middle of the 15th century, in 1818 and in 1858. In the end, the building was abandoned until 1878, when the bell, then hung in a tall old tree, chimed loudly to greet the victorious Russian forces arriving in Sofia.
The bell still hangs there today, while the church has been restored twice. Each restoration has resulted in the discovery of more catacombs, a roman necropolis, graves and early Christian monuments. An extensive research project is underway to excavate and preserve the whole ancient complex. The church still serves its original purpose, hosting the rituals for the election of the patriarch. Against its south wall is the official state memorial, the monument of the Unknown Soldier, which is often the venue for remembrance ceremonies.
THE ROMANIAN CHURCH OF THE HOLY TRINITY
"The Romanian Church," as the Holy Trinity church is known, is at 152 Knyaz Boris I St, near the Synagogue. Most of Bulgaria's Romanian minority came from Macedonia between 1850 and 1903. They established their association UNIREA in 1894, the main aim of which was to build a church and a school. This was done with the help of donations from the community, on the site of the former Austro-Hungarian consulate.
The foundation stone was laid in 1905 and the architect was the ubiquitous Friedrich Grünanger, who designed it in an 18th century Romanian style. After construction ended in 1912, it took another 11 years to paint the murals. The church was consecrated in 1923.
The building did not fare well in the Allied bombing of March 1944, whose target was the historical centre of Sofia. The cupola and the central arch were destroyed. Even worse for the community was the closing of the Romanian cultural institute and the school in 1948, on the orders of the Communist regime. Despite this, the Romanian Exarchate continued to send priests to the church, but the end of Communist rule did not bring the recovery of the cultural institute, as the Romanian authorities had hoped.
Whether in search of leverage or for another reason, in May 2009 the Romanian Exarchate put an end to church services in Bulgarian in St Iliya in Bucharest, which church had been given over for Bulgarian use in 1954. This failed to cause a diplomatic incident, however, the only reaction on the Bulgarian side being a vague "expression of concern."
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High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.